In Search of Perfection

Edward A. Dreyfus, Ph.D.

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The belief that perfection can be achieved affects the lives of countless numbers of people. Many people are obsessed with achieving perfection to the point that it affects their physical and psychological well-being. These individuals are commonly referred to as "perfectionists." They seek the perfectmate, the perfect job, the perfect body, and they are often unhappy in their quest. Even the most mundane task can become an ordeal since the task must beperformed to an exacting standard. These people experience disappointment and dissatisfaction and are often unable to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. They believe that perfection is attainable; they experience falling short of the goal as failure. These individuals spend an inordinate amount of time trying to make certain that they will avoid making mistakes.

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Perfection is meant to be an abstract ideal toward which we strive in anattempt to gain proficiency and to excel. It is a concept designed to spur us on to greater heights. The meaning of the word perfection is illustrated by the phrase "striving toward perfection." Few people who adopt seeking perfection as a value (as opposed to achieving perfection) expect to achieveit. Seeking perfection merely connotes that process of moving closer to an abstract ideal.

The concept of perfection in itself has no meaning in a concrete sense. It only takes on meaning when we ask the question "perfect for what?" In other words, it is a relative concept. Perfect weather for sailing is not the same as perfect weather for ice-skating. The perfect fishing rod when deep sea fishing for marlin is different from that used when lake fishing for trout. And the perfect knife for hunting is different than the one used for stemming strawberries.

Perfectionists are driven to have everything they do meet some internal standard of perfection. Often these people find it difficult to take on projects because they will spend so much time and energy carrying out the task that they become over whelmed and often either cannot complete the task or they take so long that it no longer matters.

Perfectionists live in a narrowly defined world in which they feel empowered. In this narrowly defined world, they believe it is more possible to beperfect. The fewer activities they engage in, the greater the possibility of achieving this goal. Waiting for perfectionists to make a never tried before dinner to their perfectionist standards, could leave one hungry for a long time. Even perfectionists become frustrated with themselves, often refusing to cook or even eat because they could not prepare it to perfection. Time is often the enemy of perfectionists since they cannot achieve perfection on a schedule.

Perfectionists cannot tolerate mistakes. Even the slightest error is frustrating and can even generate overwhelming anxiety. It is as though eachact were a life and death struggle. Each mistake could cause imminent catastrophe. Perfectionists even lose sleep worrying about projects in which they think they may have made a mistake. Perfectionism is an attempt to master and control the environment.

Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionists keep their world at a minimum so that they won't have to become over whelmed with all of the possible imperfections, be open to criticism from others, and can maintain their things in perfectorder. By keeping the world narrow perfectionists are not exposed to the threat of criticism.

Our society reinforces perfection. From childhood we learn that being "good" is very important. We learn that "good" means being quiet, orderly, clean, and disciplined, where being controlled is rewarded. We learn to delay gratification, put our toys away, not to spill our milk, and to scrub ourhands clean. The child with the neatest room, cleanest hands, unsoiledclothes, gets the gold star. From early on we train our children to functionin the world where being compulsive and perfect pays off.

Schools further reinforce these values. We are taught to color within thelines, we are questioned about what happened to the 2% on a 98% correctpaper. We are asked why we received one "B" in an otherwise straight A report card. Schools make it difficult for a child to make a mistake. Conformity is the goal and in many schools, and controlling the children takes a higher prioritythan learning and discovery. Perfect children are quiet children.

When the child lives in a world where there is considerable criticism forerrors, mistakes, and omissions the child feels anxious, fearing loss of approvaland love. In order to ward off this anxiety and the anticipated criticism, the child begins put pressure on him/herself to do better. The child then begins to criticize himself for not performing up to the internalized parental standard.

Perfectionism becomes ingrained in the very fabric of a person's personality. Because it is continuously reinforced in our workplace, and in society in general, it is very difficult to relinquish. The payoffs are considerable. We learn very early in life that mistakes are not acceptable.

So how can we change? It often feels as though the consequences of giving up perfectionism will be worse than dealing with the pain.

First, you must be willing to endure the short-term agony of giving up your cherished beliefs--that in many instances have helped you to survive in a chaotic world.

Second, you have to develop a new belief system, one which is more congruent with contemporary information. Most of the beliefs held by perfectionists are based on data collected during childhood.

Third, you must be willing to risk changing behavior. Though this is easier once you have changed the beliefs, habitual ways of behaving are difficult to change.

Fourth, few people are able to accomplish these feats alone. Support from friends and family, along with working with a psychotherapist is frequently necessary. Remember, these beliefs and behaviors were developed inchildhood. They are very resistant to change.

The following are some ideas for you to consider:

Mistakes are opportunities in disguise. They offer you the opportunity tolook at situation from a different perspective. Many inventions and discoveries have been the result of a mistake. Columbus discovered America while searching for the West Indies; he simply got lost!

Embrace your mistakes and learn to forgive yourself. Most of us grow morefrom support and affection than from criticism. Criticism causes us to shrinkfrom the world. Mistakes indicate that you have made an attempt--that you have dared to try!

People who have been voted into the Hall of Fame, earned an Oscar or received a Pulitzer prize have had many a song, book, movie or play bomb or even trashed before (and after) they had a hit. Babe Ruth held the record for the most home runs and the most strikeouts!

Intentionally perform a task to less than perfect standards; see whathappens. Notice how you feel.

Keep your mind onthe purpose of your tasks. Be certain the energy you put into the project is related to the purpose of the task. Remember: perfection is relative.

Be human: make a mistake!

5/29/98

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Dr. Edward A. Dreyfus is a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage, Family, Child Therapist, and Sex Therapist. Dr. Dreyfus has been providing psychological services in the Los Angeles-Santa Monica area for over 30 years. He offers individual psychotherapy to adolescents and adults, divorce mediation, couples counseling, group therapy, and career and vocational counseling and assessment.

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